Music Matters: Rediscovering the forgotten sounds of Somalia

Iftin is the The Ministry of Education’s band. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 September 2020

Music Matters: Rediscovering the forgotten sounds of Somalia

  • Some of the Arab world’s most intriguing music is uncovered in Analog Africa’s latest compilation ‘Mogadisco’

MUSCAT: In the aftermath of the Ogaden War, Somalia’s Bakaka Band found themselves “somewhat meaningless,” in the words of singer Shimaali Ahmed Shimaali. Founded to sing patriotic songs by the government’s Ministry of Interior in 1978 — the height of the Somali-Ethiopian border conflict — peacetime presented a crisis of identity.

After reinventing themselves as a private party band, playing to tourists in Mogadishu’s hotels, the musicians were arrested — all because they had inadvertently chosen a new name, Gor-Gor Band, (meaning “Eagle”) that also happened to be the title of a militant group opposed to Siad Barre’s ruling regime.

As Shimaali tells it, the president had to personally intervene to get the group off the hook, ordering them instead to take the name Dur-Dur Band, and they went on to become one of the best-known groups from a golden era of Somali music that has gone largely unheard beyond the country’s borders.

Tracks by both Bakaka Band and Dur-Dur Band make up a healthy share of “Mogadisco: Dancing Mogadishu (Somalia 1972-1991),” a compilation released by the eclectic Analog Africa imprint at the end of 2019. It is more than a record, it’s a musical archaeology project accompanied by vintage photos and fresh interviews, in which Shimaali’s story is told.

Dur-Dur Band became one of the best-known groups from a golden era of Somali music that has gone largely unheard beyond the country’s borders. (Supplied)

Analog Africa’s Tunisian founder Samy Ben Redjeb tells Arab News that his visit to Somalia was the first by an international label, his efforts uncovering miraculous musical moments otherwise forgotten — such as “Hab Isii” (literally “Hug Me”) an infectiously seductive dance-floor filler driven by a stonking reggae rhythm and tropical flavor, recorded by singer Omar Shooli in 1986 — that offer a window into the culture of a country often overshadowed by its tumultuous socio-political situation.

“The thing with Somalia is that all the news you get from the country is only negative,” says the 49-year-old Redjeb.  “So to imagine that this was one of the most beautiful towns in Africa and extremely rich culturally – that was basically the message I wanted to navigate through the compilation, to paint a more positive picture of that country.”

After finally obtaining a visa, invite and host for his stay, Redjeb spent five weeks in the Somali capital in late 2016, waiting each morning to be picked up by the armed guards who would take him to the dusty archives of the state’s Radio Mogadishu, where he dug through stacked boxes of hundreds of often sparsely labeled cassettes.

“I knew I was not going to come back empty-handed, that’s for sure, but I didn’t know what exactly I would find,” he says. “That’s basically my job — to go into uncharted territory and try to find music that is interesting enough to be released for an international market.”

Samy Ben Redjeb is the Tunisian founder os Analog Africa. (Supplied)

Amid the radio jingles, political speeches, background music, devotionals and theater soundtracks, he uncovered documents of the capital’s thriving ’70s and ’80s band scene, original multilingual material heavily influenced by the era’s Western disco and funk flavors, but rooted in regional Balwo musical poetry traditions, and often smattered with a Latin and Caribbean lilt. More than mere ethnography, the music he assembled for release is as fun and familiar as it is fascinating and obscure — just listen to Marvin Gaye-loving singer Mukhtar Ramadan IIdi’s primitively recorded foot-tapping “Check Up Your Head” and “Baayo.”

Collectively, the release’s 12 tracks tell the story of a period both uniquely fertile but strictly controlled. Now the subject of their own standalone Analog Africa retrospective gathered from the same visit (“Dur-Dur of Somalia – Vol. 1, Vol. 2”), Dur-Dur Band’s story is not uncommon; after assuming the presidency following the 1969 coup, President Barre invested heavily in culture, and almost every government ministry boasted its own well-funded band. “While other African countries were going down musically and culturally in the Eighties, Somalia was going up,” says Redjeb. “Ghana in the Eighties was completely dead, while Somalia was exploding just because of the political environment.”

But the Bakaka Band’s brand of patriotic music is far more than the crude jingoism associated with the genre, the languid “Godonimada” (Choose Freedom) pits lazy call-and-response tribal chants over reggae groves, while the trippy “Geesiyada Halgamayow” (Brave Fighters) bounces between slow, spooky, and furious funk passages.

The state-funded bands were frequently called on to provide live accompaniment to musical plays staged at the National Theater of Somalia. (Supplied)

When they weren’t on government duties or representing Somalia at international festivals, these incredibly versatile state-funded bands were frequently called on to provide live accompaniment to musical plays staged at the National Theater of Somalia, with The Ministry of Education’s Iftin Band contributing the eerie, sci-fi-flavored synth instrumentals “Sirmaqabe” (No Secrets) and “Ii Ooy Aniga” (Cry For Me).

With new productions staged on a monthly basis, there was a constant demand for new, audience-pleasing scores, big on singalongs, which were hastily recorded and distributed to the public prior to the production’s opening. That’s the source of the compilation’s “Waakaa Helaa” (I Like You), an imploring falsetto sung by young female singer Fadumo Qassim, backed by the legendary Shareero Band.

After these formal theater gigs, the musicians would typically pile into a minivan with their equipment to moonlight at the city’s higher-end hotels, playing Michael Jackson or Tracey Chapman hits to a mix of Italian tourists and moneyed locals. When the revellers went home in the early hours, the bands would often stick around until dawn, writing and recording DIY cassettes of their own original music away from the demands of dancers and the pressures of politics.

“You couldn’t be totally independent, you always had a toe in politics, because you were a voice and the government would use that voice whenever they wanted,” warns Redjeb. “You might be independent, but when they called you, you had to be there.”

UK to return looted Sumerian artifact to Iraq

Updated 28 September 2020

UK to return looted Sumerian artifact to Iraq

  • Temple plaque found in online auction spotted by experts at British Museum
  • Thought to have been stolen from Tello in southern Iraq, site of ancient city of Girsu

LONDON: An ancient artifact that may have been looted before being smuggled to the UK is set to return to Iraq.

The item is a Sumerian temple plaque featuring the seated figure of a high priest or ruler, carved from limestone and dating from around 2400 BC.

It will be sent to Iraq, where it is thought to have originated, after it was spotted for sale and seized by police in 2019 following a tip off by experts at the British Museum in London.

The plaque will be put on display to the public for the next two months at the museum before its repatriation.

Prior to its discovery, no record of the plaque was found in any official record or museum inventory, lending credence to the theory that it may have been looted.

It bears physical resemblances to other Sumerian artifacts discovered at Girsu, one of the world’s oldest known settlements, at modern-day Tello in southern Iraq.

Girsu, originally excavated by French archaeologists from the late 19th century, has also been the focus of researchers from the British Museum in recent years. Even now, only a small part of the site has been successfully excavated.

The trade in stolen and smuggled items of huge value from the Middle East is lucrative, and a constant source of dialogue between the British Museum and international police forces hunting stolen goods.

“We’re used to coming across tablets, pots, metalwork, seals and figurines on the art market or in seizures that have been trafficked. But it’s really exceptional to see something of this quality,” said Dr. St. John Simpson, the museum’s senior curator.

“There are only about 50 examples of these known from ancient Mesopotamia. So that immediately places it on the high-rarity scale,” he added.

“We can be fairly sure that this object comes from the Sumerian heartland. That is the area that got very badly looted between the 1990s and 2003.”

Christopher Wren of TimeLine Auctions, where the plaque was spotted for sale by Simpson’s colleague Sebastien Rey, admitted that it was possible that it had been looted from Iraq. 

“The vendor, who had casually and innocently acquired it from a German arts fair some years ago, was horrified to hear this and immediately volunteered to renounce any claim to ownership and expressed the wish that it be returned to its place of origin,” Wren said.

“The piece is not documented as having been looted and is not listed on any database, so it did not show on the checks undertaken by us.”

Mohammad Jaafar Al-Sadr, Iraq’s ambassador to the UK, said: “We extend our gratitude to the British Museum staff for their efforts and cooperation with us.”